As soon as the game begins the knives are thrown. Someone is trying to get a lucky kill, either to put on YouTube and show off, or just for the pleasure of taking the first kill. Soon the gunfire starts, and how long is it before someone has enough of a kill streak to start calling in bonuses to help their team out. Usually it is not very long. But, how many people wonder what purpose their actions in a Call of Duty match really have?
Vaas in Far Cry 3, not-quite quoting Albert Einstein, famously said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to change. Let us take this definition and apply it to the prevalence of multi-player games. Especially games like the Call of Duty series, and other games developed and released solely to be played in competitive online ‘arenas’.
In a sense, this is rather unfair – because the game arenas in online games like Call of Duty accommodate a number of variables and approaches. ‘Each game is different’, fans of this style of gaming have often said. There is some truth to this, not every game is played the same way because of the very human element, often you are against and with different people in every game, which in theory spices things up with different personalities and playing habits and styles.
However, in a grander sense application of Vaas’s (and Einstein’s) definition of insanity to online gaming is perfectly justified. Because outside of those randomised variations, every game is the same. It is always the same maps, same rules, same goals, and when you are always working ultimately to the same goals that test the same skills in the same way over and over, what really is the ultimate goal?
The obvious response to this would be that it is fun, and that may well be true. Most games have a goal to work toward, the completion of a story that saves the game world from some great evil or satisfying a personal vendetta – or often getting the characters ahead in the game world in some way, say to the top of the criminal underworld in GTA. Whatever it is, there is a point to the action that is inherent in the game narrative. But when there is no game narrative, like in multiplayer games, what exactly is there? Well – fun! It’s just fun, stop being such a buzz-kill. Why do you need any other point at all?
This finding enjoyment in doing something without point, over and over again, just to have fun with it before your time with whatever ‘it’ is ends, is very reminiscent of the Absurdist philosophical ideas expressed in the writings of the 20th century French philosopher Albert Camus. Particularly his 1942 book The Myth of Sisyphus.
The point of Camus’ use of the myth of Sisyphus is that while Sisyphus is being condemned by the gods to be forever pushing a rock up a hill, we must imagine him to be happy to be condemned in this way. Camus is imagining Sisyphus happy in his labour because that labour itself gives his life a purpose that no other act or agency can, because what is most important of all is the experience of the act that both gives meaning to the act and also understanding of existence, despite the absurd meaninglessness of the world – hence ‘Absurdism’. As Camus writes:
Happiness and the Absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd…
All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up.
The Myth of Sisyphus opens on a meditation on the act and justification for suicide. Why, it asks us, in a meaningless universe do we not just kill ourselves? What is it, after God’s death in the Nietzschian tradition (God is dead and we have killed him?) that keeps us wanting to live, and even be fully alive?
Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that ‘God is dead’ (first found in the parable of the madman in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Happy Science) and not Thus Spake Zarathustra as many seem to think) should not be understood as a flatly atheist statement about how the idea of God has died because he never existed, and we are just now waking up to that fact, instead it should be understood, as is made perfectly clear in the parable, as meaning the place and importance the idea of God had for society to function has died. In a sense, too, Nietzsche is even bemoaning the fact God had died, because there is not a lot to replace God. Either the democratic masses would replace God (which he would not have liked, Vox Populi, Vox Dei) or high culture and art would have replaced God, which these days may seem ridiculous. Absurd.
In the Myth of Sisyphus, Nietzsche’s Death of God, and the death of purpose in life, is agonisingly felt. Chapters like ‘Philosophical Suicide’ and ‘Absurd Freedom’ detail the philosophical, moral, and even personal problems that had to be faced in working through and living in a world utterly devoid of meaning and purpose. The base idea might be summed up like this: if some dispassionate alien saw life on earth as it is, through a telescope, never able to have contact with us or communicate in any way, was also able to see millions of other worlds he would similarly have no chance to communicate with, and spent his entire life looking at the millions of worlds he could simply observe but never interact with, how would he feel to turn his telescope on one day and see our world had been destroyed by a comet? Would he ever even notice? With no God ultimately looking out for us then we are not just bleakly alone, but we are also free to suffer the consequences of our own mistakes. (I will get back to video games soon, I promise).
There is something slightly horrifying in this nihilistic pessimism, and that nihilism gives rise to Existential Angst (or is that ‘Nausea’?) the deeply felt conscious discomfort with struggling to find some meaning to your own life that does not seem either selfishly subjective, pathetic, or delusional. What is the point of earning millions of pounds/dollars on the stock markets if you cannot take all that money with you into the next life? What is the point of living if there is no next life?
Camus’ answer to these questions is simple: happiness. In a world – or existence – where nothing we do will ever really matter in the grand scope of the cosmos, we can at least enjoy our time between the cradle and the grave, and do things that ‘feel’ meaningful and make us happy to distract us from the meaninglessness of both the action and the happiness we take from it. The normal person wakes up, makes a cup of coffee, showers, gets dressed, goes to work, stopping at the same traffic lights day in, day out, says hello to many of the same people, and doing the same things. Many people often change their route to work. Maybe instead of going through the town, they take some long, tree-shaded country roads that add 10 minutes to their journey, but the time to take the trip does not matter, what matters is the difference – the pleasure taken in the more attractive landscape. Here we return to video games.
In the act of playing a game, and either winning or losing but having an experience of the competition, we are fulfilling this paradox of finding personal meaning in meaninglessness. It should be noted – and perhaps even stressed: here the word ‘meaningless’ is being used in the most objective sense, like the dispassionate alien above, and not in the sense of ‘purposelessness’, which is to imply that the act of finding enjoyment in a video game is itself worthless. But we might often be tempted to question what the point would be of playing a game we do not like, or are never winning at, and even playing video games at all, and so stop never to touch console or controller ever again. When we win we are elated, and when our brains are stimulated by fun and enjoyment we find the purpose of the act. People play games like Call of Duty because they are a lot of fun – never questioning the meaning behind why they are playing.
In fact, the game is distracting people from asking why they are playing, as it is distracting them from other things that are perhaps more weighty and important, like some political matter or something done to advance their social or financial situation. We are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’ as T.S. Eliot said in his Four Quartets, but as humans we need to have these distractions because we crave and love this distraction because it is stimulating our brains. It is pleasurable for its own sake. It does not need meaning, because the act alone gives it meaning, and this is as true of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill as it is dominating the other team in Nuke Town.
If all culture is a defence against apathy and nihilism, as Nietzsche was concerned that it was, then games like Call of Duty give people some kind of a purpose – doing a job Nietzsche hoped would be filled by Wagnerian opera. This purpose in playing can be seen in how seriously people take their game and their ability. On Call of Duty there are ‘clans’ made up of people who have selected and named each other, for the sole purpose of playing the game together. There is in the new big MMO Overwatch an entire world and back story that is fleshed out in short videos that at the time of writing have an average of somewhere between 2 and 5 million views on YouTube. Players are giving themselves meaning by being in clans, and in a sense with a back story for Overwatch, meaning has been placed on meaninglessness. Both acts are ‘Absurd’, because on the face it is just a game to be played and enjoyed.
There is, as well, another form of the Absurd showing through video game culture. We see it perhaps in a much less subtle way in the Achievement systems on the Xbox, Playstations and Steam systems. Achievements reward things that can at times, in the context of the game story, seem trivial or banal. For Fable 2, one of the Achievements is to kill a bunny rabbit, an act that requires no skill at the game and has no serious benefits at all, and yet it is an achievement that is added to your record and another five gaming points on your profile that apparently are never used to buy upgrades for your games or anything really worthwhile. It is just fun, as so often it has been said, to collect Achievement points for their own sake and to show them off. To say there is no point to this to some seems nasty, and yet the question really must be asked: what point is there? And yet the way people collect them with relish makes them both absurd and Absurd.
Achievement points can often distract the player from playing the game in a more natural way, and the game itself could be a quality work of art, like Silent Hill 2 or BioShock 1, or could be a joyful distraction, like Call of Duty. Both are examples, Camus would argue, of the Absurd nature of our world and the meaningless life we all actually live. We entertain ourselves in fictional worlds with no real meaning other than the entertainment to both distract us from, and even give ourselves meaning in (as with the Call of Duty ‘clans’ mentioned above) a real world that we actually live in, that similarly has no actual meaning or conscious end goal we could be working toward. Games are a lot of fun, and who can say they would have their games any other way?
main image © Activision & vg247.com
Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, (2000, Penguin Classics, Penguin Publishing, London).
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, (2003, Routlege Classics, Suffolk).
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea, (2000, Penguin Classics, Penguin Publishing, London).
Fredrick Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (trans. by Walter Kaufman), (1991, Random House, USA).